A photograph of NYJO
Also known as the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, NYJO has grown over the years from a single jazz orchestra to an organisation with a range of activities focused on supporting and developing musicians. From programmes that focus on professional development for emerging artists, to its Learning programme for under 18s, NYJO works to make jazz and creative music-making accessible to everyone. 
 
In this month’s guest blog, Beth Ismay, NYJO’s Learning Programmes Manager and Kenyah Johnson, NYJO Assistant, lift the lid on their work developing a set of ‘Living Values’ to underpin their under 18s programme – co-created with the young people themselves. 

NYJO Under 18s Living Values: what does it really mean to make sure everyone is heard? By Beth Ismay, NYJO’s Learning Programmes Manager and Kenyah Johnson, NYJO Assistant 

In October 2023, NYJO Learning ran a half-term workshop to explore values and improvisation. We invited our NYJO Under 18s, along with other local young musicians, to join us for this day. Our NYJO Under 18s programme runs on Saturdays at Woolwich Works and has two groups, NYJO Under 18s Ensemble and NYJO Under 18s Band, run by the brilliant Winston Clifford and Olivia Murphy respectively. The purpose of this programme is to support our young people’s learning and progress – no matter what their goals are, or what level of experience they have when they join us, we want to support them to develop as well-rounded musicians and people. 

Creating values together 

We invited this group of young musicians to come together to explore the concept of 'Living Values'. We wanted to jointly create a set of values that would come to represent the NYJO Under 18s programme. We had already begun some work with our Under 18s to create a code of conduct, where we asked them to write down one thing that they think it is important everyone does to ensure our rehearsals are a safe and enjoyable space to be in. They had come up with some brilliant suggestions – including “support and help others, make sure everyone understands it’s okay to make mistakes, make sure everyone is heard, be confident and try your best”. We wanted to unpick these suggestions with them and consider how the concepts of support, confidence and respect might look in practice during our work.  
 
We asked the young people to respond to different scenarios by suggesting practical steps that would promote safety, wellbeing and confidence. We asked: “how could you help a less-experienced member of the group feel more confident?”, and they responded with how they would value the musical experiences that they bring with them already and make a point of noticing the moments where they do things well, instead of only focusing on the things that they are finding more difficult. 
A group of NYJO musicians
We also asked: “what would you do if you notice that someone has put their hand up twice to answer a question during a session and not been picked?”. A highlight of the discussions that came out of this was when one of our young people suggested that they would consider the role that they themselves were playing in this conversation – how much space is my own voice taking up in this discussion and am I personally leaving room for someone else to feel listened to and valued? Noah, one of our young musicians, commented on how “it was very good to discuss what to do in these quite common situations” and we were just generally so impressed to hear our young people, all aged between 14-18, really getting to grips with such a complex way of understanding what it really means to “make sure everyone is heard”. 

New approaches to improvisation 

A group of NYJO musicians
The afternoon was spent communicating in the language they most enjoy… music! A group of our NYJO Emerging Professional musicians led a free improvisation jam with the group. Our Emerging Professionals are musicians aged 18-25 who are interested in furthering their career playing jazz and jazz-adjacent genres. Through providing opportunities like this, we are looking to help them develop their abilities as educators and nurture a process of skills-sharing between age groups. These musicians led the Under 18s in different free jazz experiments to discover some new approaches to improvisation. 
 
One of our Under 18 vocalists, Anna, reflected afterwards on what this had felt like: “It did bring me out of my comfort zone, especially the weird noises part, but I really enjoyed it as I wasn’t the only one doing it. I felt supported by the Over 18 musicians as they were really encouraging.” Lydia, one of our Emerging Professional musicians, also considered what it felt like to shift the dynamics of leadership around the space and encourage our Under 18s to lead as well as listen: “I liked having a more fused support/leading role, having the learners lead the session a bit more, having more interaction and collaboration!” 
As Lydia notices, having these opportunities to interact and collaborate with other young musicians away from the pressures of school, performances and exams, is at the core of what we offer through our Under 18s programme. Reflecting on the jam session, Kenyah, one of our NYJO Assistants, likened the process to the joy of drawing for drawing’s sake – “If all you’re doing is preparing for a gig or a final performance, where’s the time to just experiment and learn new things?”. Our Emerging Professionals really challenged our Under 18s by encouraging them to not just try and create something that felt ‘perfect’ or finished, but to enjoy that freedom to push themselves and risk making mistakes or doing something that might, in another setting, sound ‘wrong’. Through her reflections on the project, Kenyah pinpointed some of the really joyous moments of interaction and collaboration between our Under 18s that took place: 
 
“I could see people like Noah and Jamal, who had only met at the beginning of the day, collaborating and bouncing ideas off each other throughout. Jesse, AJ and Tom were all taking it in turns to play the various drums that were on offer, and Anna and Imani were figuring out together ways to incorporate vocals into the jam.” 

Bravery on display 

At NYJO, we are always looking to help our members grow – not just as musicians but also as people. What was most striking about this day was the real sense of bravery on display from them – that they feel safe enough with us to come outside their comfort zones, find a sense of creative freedom, and explore the limits of what they can do is always our biggest achievement. 
 
It was fitting, therefore, that when our NYJO Under 18s were asked during the session to identify what five key words they wanted to become our NYJO living values, they collectively chose ‘Teamwork, Skills, Creativity, Respect and Courage’. It takes an enormous amount of courage to interrogate the space that you take up in a room and how you can best help another person to feel heard and valued. It takes an enormous amount of courage to explore what weird and wonderful sounds you can make with your voice or on your instrument, and risk sounding ‘wrong’ or out of place. And it takes an enormous amount of courage to be a young person openly trying to find your creative voice and what you want to say as a musician today. 
A group of NYJO musicians playing drum kit, congas and trombones
That’s why we are so proud of everyone that joins us for a project, workshop, or in-school session, and we hope that their voices will continue to lead us as we develop as an organisation that centres their interests and needs at every stage. 
 
To learn more about NYJO, visit https://nyjo.org.uk/. Find out more about the NYJO Under 18s programme and how you can get involved here or help support our work with young musicians, by donating here
 
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